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Proposed zoning code update draws business objections

Rosemary Shinohara
Proposed changes to city commercial development standards name this Qdoba on Abbott Road as a good example of design for its sidewalk accessibility and multiple surface design.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Proposed changes to city commercial development standards would change building design like the Blockbuster video rental store at Abbott Road and Independence Drive. This wall of the building faces Independence Drive.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News

A years-long effort to make Anchorage's strip malls, stores, office buildings and other commercial buildings look more appealing and be more easily accessible to customers and others is headed for a vote this spring. But opposition is also rising.

Under the proposed new rules, a local builder no longer could put a windowless, blank side of a commercial building next to the street, a sight that's now visible all over town -- for example, the street-facing backside of the Qdoba restaurant and GCI building on DeBarr Road in Muldoon.

Instead, the city would get more buildings like the Orthopedic Physicians Anchorage building on Lake Otis Parkway, designed to be attractive to passers-by with an architecturally interesting facade, a street-side entrance and the building itself pulled right up to the sidewalk. More buildings like this one will enliven street views all over Anchorage and make getting around easier, the planners say.

When it comes to what the buildings must look like -- their design -- the current rule book is mostly blank.

Only big retailers like Walmart, Target, Carrs and Fred Meyer face such rules. Since 2001, they've been required to build fancier storefronts than, say, the original Walmart in Midtown Anchorage, which was a giant, plain box.

Now the Anchorage Assembly is considering design rules like those that cover big-box stores for all commercial buildings.

But the idea has sparked a backlash.

A group called the Building Owners and Managers Association has started a petition drive to get the city to kill the massive, seven-year-long, 14-chapter modernization of local zoning laws, of which commercial design standards are part. They want the city to stay with existing code and amend it so it "meets the needs of concerned Anchorage property owners."

And some well-respected architects worry the pending rules will be a flop: They might get rid of the city's worst architecture but bring down the level of the rest by making architects choose features from lists.

Those in favor, such as Anchorage Assembly member Sheila Selkregg, say Anchorage has to protect itself from the worst cases, like fly-by-nighters who build crummy developments and leave.

HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?

The Assembly committee charged with reshaping Anchorage's zoning laws is split on how much commercial design regulation we need.

Merely weather-related stuff because we're a northern city, or rules that ban boring blank exterior walls?

Rules for office buildings and stores, or just stores?

The committee is now debating wording of the proposed design rules, the last major hurdle in the long effort to update the city zoning code, known in City Hall as Title 21.

Erika McConnell, a city planner working on the revisions, says U.S. cities take three different approaches to commercial design.

Some say, "This is how you have to do it, period" -- for example, mandating that buildings be built next to the street instead of at the back of a lot.

In some cities a design panel reviews each building proposal.

And some cities let builders pick from a list of architectural design elements.

Anchorage planners are proposing three menus from which builders would pick items, with the idea that the bigger the building, the more design features a builder would have to include. But generally they would have to pick two or three items from each of three categories:

• Windows, entrances and the building's orientation in reference to the sidewalk and street. The idea is that windows and entrances close to the street make for a livelier presentation.

City planner Tom Davis says you can see the difference by checking out two Qdoba Mexican Grill restaurants.

One in South Anchorage has a colorful, inviting entrance on Abbott Road, with windows low enough that you can see inside, and a paved walkway to the front door.

A Qdoba at the intersection of DeBarr and Muldoon roads offers a gray, windowless view to those passing by on the street.

• Building design. Examples of choices are setting an upper story back from the lower stories; building a plaza; adding a second color, texture or material to the front of the building; or creating recesses or projections so the facade is not just a flat surface.

The much admired green-tinted Arctic Slope Regional Corp. office tower at 40th Avenue and C Street features a plaza courtyard and the kinds of differences in exterior texture and color that are recommended. One section is green glass in a semicircular shape. The north end of the building is straight and made of Brazilian granite.

• Northern climate considerations. Points would be awarded for entrances protected from the weather, a sheltered or ice-free walkway, a sunlit atrium, and balconies or marquees that project out over a sidewalk or entrance, providing cover.

For example, Walgreens on DeBarr Road would get points for a sheltered entrance and an arcade along the side of the building.

NOT GOOD ARCHITECTURE

Daphne Brown, a Kumin Associates architect, thinks when you add up all the items to be checked off, the requirements would be hard to meet and not lead to good architecture.

"They should focus on site development and landscaping and making good connections to the parking, bus stops and walkways," she says. "By imposing these standards you're going to bring everything down to mediocre level."

The revised city code does cover landscaping and parking in other sections.

"Landscaping softens a building whether it's good or bad," and it's what most people see when they drive by, Brown says.

Gordon Thompson, another architect, is in the same camp. "I'm fundamentally opposed to trying to legislate design," says Thompson, who has designed many commercial buildings, from the Spenard Harley shop to the First National Bank building at 36th Avenue and A Street.

While the proposal encourages placing buildings next to the street, that's not always a good idea, Thompson says. "There are so many things that help us place a building on a site -- orientation to the sun, to the street. I like to provide as short a distance to walk to parking as possible."

THE BAR IS TOO LOW

Architect James Dougherty, managing partner of the Alaska office of RIM Architects, says Anchorage needs some design rules.

Without standards, the bar is set too low, he says. RIM does big projects -- the UAA library, the Arctic Slope building, the Century Theatre and the JL Properties office building in Midtown with roof lights lit up at night, for example.

The standards should be flexible and let architects create their own solutions that then can be presented to a review board, Dougherty says. The proposed code does this, he says.

"What I like so much about this menu-based system they've come up with -- there's certainty in it. If I do this, I will get a building permit."

He thinks the city should start slowly, though, with lots of choices and few requirements.

"My fear is we'll put in too many requirements and there will be too much backlash. I think we need to get our feet wet." After the code goes into effect, if design problems surface, the city could ratchet up the rules, Dougherty says.

Resolving these questions is becoming urgent. There's a push on the Assembly to complete the zoning-code revisions before two Assembly members who have worked on them for years -- Dan Coffey and Sheila Selkregg -- give up their seats in April.

The initial approval will be preliminary -- the plan is for the administration to have an extended time to review the new zoning laws before they are finally adopted by the Assembly.

Find Rosemary Shinohara online at adn.com/contact/rshinohara or call her at 257-4340.

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By ROSEMARY SHINOHARA
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